I volunteer to hold people's hands at the end of their lives

When I first decided to become an NHS volunteer in April 2020, I thought I’d keep it up for about six months before stepping back.

Something to keep busy throughout the lockdowns, and a way to see people while my son lives away at university.

Now, over a year later, it’s become one of my life’s joys – I can’t see myself ever giving it up.

When my dad suffered a serious stroke in 2019, I saw first-hand just how hard the staff of Southend University Hospital worked to care for him. They saved his life, and there’s nothing I wanted more than to show them how grateful I was. 

I thanked them, of course – but I didn’t really think there was anything more I could do. 

Then, the pandemic began. I saw an advert on social media for the hospital looking for people to sign up to help out around the hospital as staff worked full-out to manage the strain caused by Covid-19.

Before this, most people who’d volunteered for the hospital were in their seventies and older – but they’d been told to isolate for their safety. Suddenly, there was a drastic drop in the number of volunteers available, right when they were needed most.

I knew I had to help out. I’m 43, and since I live alone and work from home as an IT account manager, there was a smaller risk of me bringing anything into the hospital. Of course, I could have caught the coronavirus myself from the ward, but I could have just as easily picked it up while doing the weekly shop, I reasoned. 

At least this way I’d be giving back.

When I first went into the hospital for my induction session, I instantly knew I absolutely had to support them. You could see the exhaustion on people’s faces – consultants and admin staff alike.

I’d put together care bags for the staff, filled with drinks, toiletries, confectionery and hand creams; make teas and coffees for them on their breaks in the Wellness Hub, as well as handing out treats.

Before I knew it, I was at the hospital two to three days a week, either giving up an evening or time on the weekends. Since I’m based in Hertfordshire, it’s quite a journey getting there – but it’s worth it to see the ways that people benefit from volunteers’ help.

I was so passionate about the work I was doing that I convinced my sister to start volunteering at her local hospital, Watford General. 

As the pandemic went on, and the vaccine rollout began, there was less of a demand for help at Southend. It was my sister who told me about how there was a need for end of life volunteers at her hospital.

In the months I’d spent in and around hospitals, I remember hearing people talk about their own friends and family members: worried that they were alone, or scared at the end of their lives.

The hospital staff are fabulous, but because they are so busy with clinical duties they often don’t have time to sit down for an hour and talk to people – and the people in the beds want some conversation outside of ‘Can I take your blood?’ and ‘Here’s your antibiotics’.

I couldn’t think of anything worse than my parents or anyone else stuck in hospital, during a pandemic, and not having visitors. 

So, end of life volunteering began. I’ll go in, introduce myself, and just ask if they want some company.

It depends on the patient, but often I’ll hold their hands, brush their hair for them, make sure they’re comfortable in bed, or read them a book.

Sometimes, the people are so close to the end, or on such high levels of medication or painkillers that I’m not sure if they know I’m there, or if they can feel me holding their hand. I love to chat, so I’m happy to just talk, whether they can hear me or not! 

This work supports the patient’s loved ones, too – if family members are able to be there visiting, I’ll step in for them if they need a breather or a toilet break. They know that in their absence, no matter how brief, there’s someone with the person they love.

I met a 93-year-old woman in hospital; she’d been waiting for an operation, rather than on end-of-life care. But she told me how lovely it was just to talk to someone. 

And I loved hearing her: she told me about her life, how she met her husband. It was rewarding to just listen to someone open up about the experiences they’d had.

As of yet, I haven’t been with anyone at the moment they pass. You’d think that being around people at the end of their lives would be depressing. In many senses, it’s always sad. But because you just sit and talk, you kind of forget that they’re dying. You’re just sitting and talking to someone – a human interaction.

If I hadn’t taken up volunteering, I wouldn’t have survived this pandemic, mentally. It really would have affected me. For me to go in and do this, it’s taken my mind off of not really being able to see my son or my parents, and interacting with other people. 

Between my time at both hospitals, I’ve made friends for life and it’s changed me as a person – I have a whole new perspective. I don’t work myself into the ground anymore, and I truly see how much value there is in a conversation.

Helen’s volunteering was enabled through Helpforce, the not-for-profit organisation that partners with health and care organisations across the UK to accelerate the growth and impact of volunteering

As told to Nicole Vassell

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Volunteers’ Week takes place 1-7 June and highlights the amazing ways people can give back and help others. To get involved click here. 

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